G.K. Chesterton once said, “The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”
With the election of Pope Francis, there has been an almost “catholic” attempt to determine if he is liberal or conservative. CBS claims he is a “staunch conservative” based on the fact that, as correspondent Allen Pizzey put it, he “opposes abortion, supports celibacy, and called gay adoption discrimination against children,” not to mention his opposition to faux marriage. Tingle Central’s Chris Matthews said that the new pontiff is economically “progressive,” which, if we were to be informed by actual statistics, should mean he wouldn’t give one red cent to anybody. But none of these analysts will peg the pope because they’re using the provisional to understand a man defined by an institution based in the perpetual. And the reality is this: the terms “liberal,” “conservative,” and “moderate” are, in the truest sense, meaningless in Catholic circles. And understanding why holds a lesson for all of us.
Republican Ohio senator Rob Portman recently announced that he now supports faux marriage, and other self-proclaimed conservatives, such as CNN News’ Margaret Hoover, have long done so. On the other hand, conservative Cliff Kincaid was recently scored by Michelle Malkin’s site Twitchy for writing, “There is no such thing as a ‘gay conservative,’ unless the term ‘conservative’ has lost all meaning,” prompting Renew America’s Bryan Fischer to accuse the Malkinites of “trying to redefine conservatism.” But Kincaid gets it close to right and Fischer is wrong.
Conservatism never had enduring meaning because it was never truly defined in the first place.
Understand that all places and times — that is, all modern times — have had their conservatives. Europe has its conservatives, but their general attitude toward faux marriage ranges from support to blithe indifference, and they don’t trouble much over abortion. And conservatives in the 1950s Soviet Union were communists when ours were staunchly anti-communist. The lesson here? The only consistent definition of “conservative” is “a desire to maintain the status quo.” Thus, what the average conservative is changes with the status quo.
This also means that as the status quo degrades, so will the day’s conservatism.
This is why G.K. Chesterton once said, “The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”
Many conservatives bristle when I point this out. But it’s nothing personal; hey, you may be as principled as St. Thomas More. But facts are facts, and they’re illuminated by our American political history. Most all liberal programs and social innovations — Social Security, Medicare, the Department of Education, the principle that government may prohibit unfashionable discrimination in business, and many others — were opposed at their birth by their day’s conservatives. Most are also supported by the majority of our day’s conservatives. What happened? It’s called operating based on ephemeral fashions and not timeless Truth.
Conservatives are the caboose to liberals’ locomotive: liberals propose all the changes; extract incremental compromise; and, getting a slice here, a few crumbs there, and a morsel elsewhere, eventually have the whole loaf. The result is that tradition is starved to death and fertilizes the ground in which sprout the weeds of Wormwood.
And what will happen, barring some pattern-changing civilizational upheaval, is obvious. As you principled old-guard types die out, more malleable conservatives become further inured, and tomorrow’s conservatives are born and mature, faux marriage will be taken for granted as it is in Sweden (US polls have already shifted on the issue), and ObamaCare will be considered as necessary as the NHS is in Britain.
The problem is that conservatism is like liberalism in that it reflects relativism. Conservatives are on one side of the political and cultural spectrum as defenders of the status quo, though it’s a role they perform poorly; liberals are on the other side as the overthrowers of the status quo.
And they meet in the left-of-center.
That spectrum’s middle point then moves further away from Truth as society’s consensus views become increasingly corrupted. In other words, the spectrum is fluid because it’s determined by man’s whims, and the same is true of the definitions of the terms used to describe the positions on it: liberal, conservative, and moderate.
Of course, many conservatives are not in bed with relativism, though some have certainly fallen victim to that characteristic cultural disease of modernity. But the point is that if you’re not a relativist — if you hold that your beliefs are eternally right and not just on the right — you’re closer to Catholicism than to any consistent notions about “conservatism,” whether you realize it or not.
The Catholic position is not conservative or liberal, but superior, and you don’t have to be Catholic to understand that this is not a claim born of sectarian chauvinism. The Church does not define itself based on a given society’s political and cultural spectrum, but based on Absolute Truth, which she recognizes to be transcendent, eternal, and unchanging. You may disagree with her conception of Truth, perhaps even profoundly, yet believing that Truth exists is the only rational position.
This relates to a conversion experience I had a long, long time ago. I realized that if there wasn’t something deeper than the political, deeper than the cultural even — if man’s opinions were all there is — then my “conservative” views were essentially meaningless. Sure, I liked them as I liked chocolate ice cream, but if they were just flavors of the day, how could I credibly say they were any better than liberal ones? To thus boast there had to a transcendent yardstick for judging such things. There had to be Truth.
This is the understanding of Catholicism as well, which, as Chesterton also said, “talks as if it were the truth; as if it were a real messenger refusing to tamper with a real message.” Liberalism will tamper, and conservatism will, in the least, yield to the tampering. This is because while William F. Buckley said that a conservative’s role was to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop…,” at what should we stop? Where is the destination? We can be a caboose making ourselves heavier and harder to pull, but at the end of the day we’re not striving for a definite destination; instead, we always behave as if there is no destination, but happiness perhaps lies in continual movement down that road to we know not where. And without an unchanging, eternal vision of our terminus, that will be our eternal error.
The Church has just such a vision. You may love it or you may hate it, but one thing you won’t do is change it. And this is why virtually all the Church’s secular critics, and even most of her secular fans, cannot understand her. They know of a world determined by man and his majority vote, a place where money and lobbying and protesting bend wills. But the Church bends to only one immutable will. This is why it’s so silly when journalists run headlines such as the Huffington Post’s “Pope Francis Against [sic] Gay Marriage, Gay Adoption.” It may as well be thought newsworthy that he upholds “Thou shalt do no murder” or that he breathes air and ingests food. What the secular left finds so shockingly politically incorrect about the Church involves definitive teaching, which means that it has a basis in Truth, cannot change, and must be obeyed by peons and popes alike.
Note that this doesn’t mean a given prelate can’t have what we call liberal or conservative instincts, and I have my reservations about Pope Francis, with his being a South American Jesuit. But the point is that when the media anxiously wait for a “liberal” pope that will deliver the Church to evil, they don’t realize that while such a man could exercise liberal tendencies, he could only do so outside the context of definitive teaching on faith and dogma. There is no “amendment process” for the commandments and their corollaries.
So while many in the media are trying to agitate against the Church, their relativistic understanding would preclude their covering her properly even if they wanted to. They’re used to a world of provisional beliefs, such as liberalism and conservatism, which lack defined doctrine or even an institution that could credibly render such and thus are defined only by their adherents. This is much as how we learned the ways of ducks not by consulting a Duck bible or catechism, but by observing their behavior.
But the Church doesn’t quack like a duck. She has a magisterium (teaching office) that has set certain doctrines in stone, and a Catholic’s relationship with respect to them is neither conservative nor liberal. The relevant terms are orthodox and heterodox or, to use a less fashionable word, heretical.
This may offend modernistic ears, but it’s the only way to not quack like a duck — and end up quacking differently in every time and place. The terms conservative and liberal are relatively new; in saner ages, there was no right and left, only right and wrong. That is the mindset we must recapture today, and it’s why I long ago stopped calling myself a conservative. Why be devoted to conserving the decades-old victories of heretics — or as some today call them, liberals? Why be on the right side of the political spectrum when even that is well to the side of Truth? And there is only Truth…and everything else.
And everything else is nothing at all.